“I also realised that I was not alone in my grief and that many of you were, in one way or another, suffering your own sorrows, your own griefs. I felt this in our live performances. I felt very acutely that a sense of suffering was the connective tissue that held us all together”
At the Little Simz entry at number 4, I worried that the ceaseless and heartless explosion of ‘news’ and ‘takes’ and ‘bullshit’ that is modern life only succeeded in confirming rather than challenging our prejudices and turning us against even family members as we’re convinced that political allegiances are the one thing that dictates whether human life is worth even considering.
Then there was Elbow at number 3, throwing their hands up in the air and wailing as they wondered what’s even the point of Elbow anymore?! There’s no sense of togetherness for them to soundtrack! The world hates itself now, and to espouse the sort of optimism and confidence that they used to would risk making them sound ridiculously out of touch! 2019 is grim, it’s paranoid, it hates it’s fellow human because, chances are, the fellow human hates them just as much so it’s best to return a shot! Then there was Sudan Archives making the second best album of the year by essentially mainstreaming her sound and making as many bangers as possible. So yeah, hear that Nick Cave? Make sure your album has as many bangers as possible, yeah?
Surely Nick Cave would be most affected by this new era of mistrust and negative assumptions. Not only has he previously made a career over detailing bad motherfuckers who would “Crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boy’s asshole“, but he would surely be more angry than most at life’s unfair and brutal nature after his 15 year old son died in 2015. He had already released ‘Skeleton Tree‘ in 2016, a broken and grim album interjected with occasional explosive pulses of agony, over which Cave sounded emotionally bereft and often numb. It was mostly a dark, hopeless reaction to a tragedy that today’s climate demands. Wallow in your misery! You’re all alone! Nobody gives a shit and anyone who does is probably racist, or something!! Mmmmm, yes, Nick Cave, feed me on your despondent tears!!
But… ‘Skeleton Tree’ was written and mostly recorded before Nick Cave’s son died, any literal reaction to the tragedy was actually written into it by the listeners. It was a pretty dark album, but in the same way ‘Tender Prey‘ or ‘Henry’s Dream‘ or ‘The Firstborn is Dead‘ or ‘Your Funeral My Trial‘ or ‘The Boatman’s Call‘ or ‘Push the Sky Away‘ are pretty dark albums. You do know who Nick Cave is? He does occasionally decide to make dark albums, y’know? His entire 80s discography is basically all songs to play at crows’ funerals, it’s not necessarily in reaction to personal tragedy. You really think that, were ‘Skeleton Tree’ written in response to his son’s death, he would open the freaking album with the line “You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field“?? Like, ouch, Nick Cave, no need to punch on the nose that hard.
‘Ghosteen’ is the real response to the tragedy, and it refuses to be the trite and accepted echo of grief that modern culture demands it be. There’s no anguished berating of an unjust world, there’s no ticking off of any accepted stages of grief. Nick Cave doesn’t mention Donald Trump or Brexit once, as far as I can tell. It was an album born of the new sense of togetherness and shared experience with his fans that was inspired by the usually private and guarded* interviewee opening up to any question anybody could think to throw at him, first through the Red Hand Files project (“In this growing treasure trove of letters to the world, he is showing how to use the web beyond the hubbub of social media, to engage in more reflective and rewarding conversations”) and then from an actual touring Q&A session. Nick Cave- who had previously explored the darkest edges of the human psyche on songs like Tupelo, Up Jumped the Devil, From Her to Eternity and, Jesus Christ, the fucking terrifying Song of Joy (“Joy had been bound with electrical tape/In her mouth a gag/She’d been stabbed repeatedly and stuffed into a sleeping bag/In their very cots my girls were robbed of their lives/Method of murder much the same way as my wife’s”)- suddenly realised that people were actually very good to each other. He realised the healing potential of shared experiences and open dialogue with that dreaded ‘general public’. Instead of opening the album with a dark lament about falling from the sky and “a young man waking/Covered in blood that is not yours“, ‘Ghosten’ instead begins with a gorgeous song that ends in Cave singing in falsetto (for… the… first time…?) that “Peace will come, and peace will come, and peace will come in time/Time will come, and time will come, a time will come for us“. The world is demanding that recent events- like Mary Bale putting that cat in a bin– strip all of your reactions down to enraged and bitter diatribes against a horrid world that doesn’t vote in the correct way! Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds actually looked into that horrid world and came out with the most beautiful music of their career.
(*though frequently entertaining. Go on, ask him about the Red Hot Chili Peppers again)
No, there are no bangers on it, there’s no one song as good as even ‘Skeleton Tree’s highlights like I Need You, but ‘Ghosteen’ is simply one sixty eight minute suite of amazing compositions that take their time to burrow underneath your ribcage and coat your heart. You won’t remember songs from ‘Ghosteen’ (honestly, I’d struggle to even name more than a handful of tracks) but instead the moments that its weightless drift and snake alongside the vocals as Cave sorts through his feelings of despair and resistance. You remember the “I love you, I love you, I love you” of Spinning Song, the echoing and devastating wail into the void that opens Bright Horses, the gorgeous rumination of “Your body is an anchor, never asked to be free/Just want to stay in the business of making you happy” in Waiting for You, holy shit just the sound of those (church??) bells on Night Raid…
But you also remember the distressing places that it takes you, you remember that grief and sadness aren’t ignored in favour of sheltered optimism, but important central places that must be faced in the long journey to acceptance. You remember how it ends with Hollywood, and with Cave’s fractured falsetto telling us that “Kisa had a baby, but the baby died”, and Kisa being told (in an echo of the Buddhist ‘Parable of the Mustard Seed‘) that to bring her son back to life she needed to collect a mustard seed from each of the families in the village who had never been touched by death (“It’s a long way to go to find peace of mind”). Kisa realises that there isn’t a single house where nobody has died, and doesn’t collect a single seed.
Kisa sat down in the old village square
She hugged her baby and cried and cried
She said everybody is always losing somebody
Then walked into the forest and buried her child
Everybody’s losing someone
Everybody’s losing someone
It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind
It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind
And I’m just waiting now, for my time to come
And I’m just waiting now, for peace to come, for peace to come
And that’s now the freaking album finishes. Ostensibly deeply sadly, with a dark reverberating bass line underlying the sense of loss, but the takeaway is that we all hold our sadness close, but we are not alone in our grief. Nick Cave wasn’t, and you weren’t, you aren’t, and you will not be when the time comes. After being swept up in its despair, ‘Ghosteen’ reminds you that it is the feats of humanity that makes such despair bearable, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of sharing our traumas with people who are just as likely to have suffered similar many times. It’s an absolutely devastating piece of work, but also the most optimistic and heartening album of the year. As well as being, by some distance, the best.
But… ‘Ghosteen’ is perhaps the least ‘Necessary Evil’ Necessary Evil winner of all time. Much like Panic! At The Disco write sins not tragedies*, I reward bangers not subtlety. I don’t usually rate music as a Pitchfork neckbeard, nodding my head to each time signature and solemnly declaring that
(*”What a shame the poor groom’s bride is a whore”?! Jesus Christ, Panic! At The Disco!! Like, chill out a bit, yeah??)
but- God damnit!!- ‘Ghosteen’ points to the power of music beyond the bangers! It’s so much bigger and more important than those lovely involuntary expressions of pleasure that music can occasionally inspire. Honestly, if you added Old Town Road to ‘Ghosteen’ I don’t think it’d make it a better album!! I’m not sure any other record in 2019 could say that. And- you know what?- it is an important album FOR OUR TIMES, fuck all y’all! So many people around the world have recently experienced trauma, perhaps not as acutely as Nick Cave, perhaps more so, and it’s important to remember the power of these shared experiences. Retreating into ourselves or into our own prejudices will never help solve such emotional labour. Guy Garvey asked “Hey how’ d’ya keep your eyes ablaze/In these faith free, hope free, charity free days?”, ‘Ghosteen’ is the answer.
The countdown is finished! Took me until January 3rd to finish last year, April the 8th the year before and sodding November 5th the year before!! I was so close to finishing it inside the year this time, honest. OK, so next up the best songs of the year, then the statistical analysis of 2019. Then I might get two days off before I have to go to work again. I’m going to rank Nick Cave’s albums at some point as well, so look out for that.
I know, right?!
(Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)